The Capitol Hill Historic District, which encompasses approximately 8,000 contributing buildings, grew from a small boarding house community for members of Congress to an area of more than 150 squares spread out over several different neighborhoods.
The first Capitol Hill neighborhood was a small community of residences, inhabited mostly by government workers. With DC as the new seat of the federal government, many Congressmen found themselves needing to get to work but unwilling to establish permanent homes in the capital city. Many opted to stay in boarding houses close to the Capitol instead, and by 1801, most Congressmen resided on Capitol Hill. Within a few decades, more than 2,000 people were living on the Hill and building homes in the growing community there.
Several of these earliest houses still stand. The oldest is The Maples, also known as Friendship House, a grand late Georgian-style estate built between 1795 and 1797 for the wealthy merchant William Mayne Duncanson (1754-1812). Several houses that reflect the Federal style popular on Capitol Hill in the early nineteenth century also remain, including the George Watterston House, a rowhouse built between 1802 and 1819 by an early Librarian of Congress, and the Mountjoy Bayly House, built in 1822 for the second Sergeant at Arms of the Senate. These structures mix a Federal style with design elements characteristic of Georgian architecture, as well as later styles from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In addition to the growing Congressional boarding house community, the construction of the Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks attracted many workers and businesses to the area. Few buildings from this early neighborhood remain standing. The Gothic Revival-style of Christ Church (built between 1806 and 1807), although altered significantly over the past two centuries, still stands as a reminder of the early Navy Yard community. Another significant religious institution was the Little Ebenezer Church, built by Capitol Hill’s earliest African American congregation in 1838. The original frame structure no longer stands, but the congregation continues to own the site, where they built a new church in 1897.
The neighborhoods around the Capitol building and the Navy Yard had been growing slowly but gradually for the first half of the nineteenth century, but construction slowed significantly during the Civil War. The Italianate and Greek Revival-style of Old Naval Hospital is one of the only structures built during this period that remains.
In the 1870s, the leadership of DC governor, Alexander Robey Shepherd led to a period of rapid construction and civic improvement throughout the city, renewing the growth of Capitol Hill. It was during this time that the Capitol Hill area became a predominantly middle-class neighborhood, as Shepherd’s public works projects established Northwest DC as the city’s most fashionable quadrant, leading wealthier residents to abandon the Southeast.
As a result, the last decades of the nineteenth century in Capitol Hill saw the construction of many of the modest row houses now considered characteristic of the historic district. As the federal workforce expanded, many of these homes were purchased by middle-class government workers. The neighborhood became more and more of a federal center as new government buildings went up nearby: the Library of Congress in 1897, Union Station in 1907, and the Russell Senate Office Building and Cannon House Office Building in 1909. Eastern Market, built in 1873 and expanded in 1908, represents one of the commercial centers constructed to support the increasing number of Capitol Hill residents.
As the early twentieth century saw significant population growth citywide, developers had to adapt to the influx of new residents arriving in DC. While Capitol Hill had for years been dominated by single-family residences, more than 100 apartment buildings were constructed within the historic district between 1900 and 1930, including George Santmyers’ Lexington Apartments at 1114 F Street NE, built in 1928. As the Great Depression devastated much of the country, DC saw little slowdown in comparison, with New Deal programs drawing even more government workers to the city and to Capitol Hill.
Instead, Capitol Hill’s slowdown occurred in the aftermath of World War II. While the Navy Yard had drawn many workers to the neighborhood during the wars, it declined dramatically after 1945. Production slowed, work was contracted out to private agencies, and technological advances rendered the Navy Yard’s operations largely obsolete. What had once been a workforce of tens of thousands shrank to just a few thousand. At the same time, increasing numbers of middle-class residents were giving up Capitol Hill for the suburbs. Many of the Victorian-era row houses they had occupied were subsequently divided up into apartments, which ushered in a new population, lower-income and more transient than the previous set.
Social reform and urban renewal efforts of the mid-twentieth century also altered the landscape of the neighborhood. New construction, often following the destruction of historic buildings, invited new residents, especially people with lower incomes looking for affordable housing. Unfortunately, in the past four decades, there has been little effort to ensure these residents can remain in their homes as wealthy residents move in, resulting in widespread displacement, particularly for African American residents. Until its eradication in 1941, alley dwellings like Navy Place SE had been home to many poor African Americans. The construction of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway in the 1960s was another of the major mid-century changes to the neighborhood’s built environment, separating Capitol Hill from the Navy Yard and destroying a number of Federal and Greek Revival-style houses.
The DC preservation movement rose around this time to preserve DC’s historic sites and architecture. At a time when most wealthy government officials were still living in Northwest DC, Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980) purchased, renovated, and restored a nineteenth century row house near the Capitol, which inspired more of the wealthy elite to do the same. This led to the preservation of many of the historic row houses that had once faced decline and destruction.
DC Listing (preliminary identification): November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
DC Inventory: June 19, 1973; boundary expansion on January 20, 1976; boundary expansion on February 7, 2002 (effective April 21, 2002); boundary increase on May 28, 2015
National Register: August 27, 1976; boundary expansion on July 3, 2003; boundary increase on October 21, 2015